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Dambulla mosque dispute now in President’s court

Local

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Amid claims and counterclaims, deadlines and discussions, the crisis awaits speedy solution
By Wasantha Ramanayake

As the dispute over the mosque in Dambulla continues for the second week amid local and international media focus, a solution to it may come in the coming days with the intervention of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The President returned to the country on Friday after a five-day official visit to South Korea. During his stay in South Korea, Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne tried to solve the dispute. But his attempts created a fresh controversy with Minister A. H. M. Fowzie and Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana denying his claim that they took part in a meeting where a decision was taken to shift the mosque to another place.
Muslim representatives now say they want to discuss the matter with the President and expressed hope a solution acceptable to all could be found.

The Dambulla mosque in the centre of controversy

They declined to attend a meeting convened by Prime Minister Jayaratne on Thursday afternoon, saying they prefer to first meet the President.

An official from the Prime Minister’s office said the Prime Minister had invited the Muslim representatives for a meeting on Thursday (27) but they had said they could take a decision only after the Friday prayers.
Hundreds of Muslims in Colombo staged protest marches and demonstrations after Juma’h prayers on Friday although the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama urged Muslims to exercise restraint and spend the day in prayer.

“Muslims should refrain from disrupting law and order by holding improper demonstrations causing inconvenience to the public and damaging public property. Moreover, we should not forget the fact that the majority of the Buddhist people are peace loving, rational and fair minded people and that they do not approve such acts and therefore we should be attentive of not hurting their feelings by taking offensive course of actions such as slamming other faiths which is not fitting for true believers.

Allah says in the Holy Qur’an not to slander what other people worship beside Allah,” the ACJU said in a statement.

On Thursday, Muslims in several areas in the Eastern Province staged a hartal in protest against Ven. Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera’s demand that the mosque be relocated in a place outside the Dambulla sacred area.

“We have identified three places for a new mosque if it is to be shifted,” Dambulla Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman K. G. Somathilake told the Sunday Times. He said a decision would be taken next week at a district meeting to be chaired by Lands Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, who himself has come under criticism for saying that the mosque lies outside the sacred area declared by a gazette notification in 1981.

The controversy arose when hundreds of Buddhists, including monks, came in procession to the vicinity of the Masjidul-Khairiyah Juma’h mosque on April 20, hours before the Friday prayers. The protesters demanded that the mosque and a Hindu shrine in the neighbourhood be shifted to another place. The mosque was damaged in a mob attack, warranting the police to seal the mosque.

No Juma’h prayers were held on April 20. The mosque was reopened the following day after officials promised that steps would be taken by Monday, April 23, to shift the mosque. However, the deadline was later extended to three-months with protesters insisting that the mosque should be removed before that.

Mosque Trustee M. Amanullah, a lawyer by profession, said the situation got out of hand because of the manner in which the demand to shift the mosque was made.

“The way they demanded the removal of the mosque was totally unacceptable in a civilized community,” he said. “If there is a dispute regarding the mosque land, it could have been sorted out through discussion through legal action.”

Dismissing Jathika Hela Urumaya Deputy Leader Udaya Gammanpila’s claim that the mosque was built on state land, Mr. Amanullah insisted that the mosque was built on private property.

“We have the deeds for the land. Besides, the mosque has been properly registered with the Waqf Board in terms of the Muslim Mosques and Charities Act. The mosque building is not taxed by the local authorities and the electricity bill bears the mosque’s name. Apart from this evidence, there are photographs to show that the mosque has been in this place for decades,” Mr. Amanullah said.

He also said it was from this mosque, an imam was invited to invoke blessings on the country when the Morgahakanda project was launched by the President in 2008. “All this proves that the authorities were well aware of the existence of this mosque,” he said.

However, Mr. Gammanpila disputed Mr. Amanullah’s claim. He said the Muslim place of worship in the centre of controversy in Dambulla was not a mosque in the true sense of the word. “It is a makeshift building constructed with tin sheets in 2009.”

The JHU frontliner said the land on which the mosque had been built belonged to the temple and it had been leased out to a Muslim trader by the then chief incumbent of the Dambulla Viharaya.

This Muslim trader built a small shed for him to pray therein, but over the years, it came to be used by other Muslims in the area for prayers, Mr. Gammanpila said. He charged that those Muslims who patronized the place had built an unauthorized structure in the adjoining land to accommodate the growing congregation.

“The construction of a Muslim place of worship in the Dambulla sacred area was illegal. It has not been approved by the Divisional Secretary or the Urban Development Authority,” Mr. Gammanpila said.
He said repeated complaints to authorities by Dambulla Viharaya monks and other concerned Buddhists against illegal constructions wihin the sacred area had fallen on deaf ears and the April 20 protest was the outcome of this official apathy. “Their protest was against the illegal constructions within the sacred zone and not particularly against the mosque or the Hindu Temple,” he said.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Dambulla Divisional Secretary Lakshmi Hewapathirana who played a key role in bringing the tense situation under control on April 20 said the land on which the mosque stood had been acquired by the state and a Gazette notification was issued to this effect in June 1984. “If someone wants to put up a building on this land, prior approval should be obtained from the Dambulla Divisional Secretary and the UDA,” she said adding that no approval had been sought or granted for the construction of a building on the disputed land.

Mr. Gammanpila said that in addition to the approval of the local authorities and the UDA, one had to obtain the approval of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs to put up any building within the sacred area in terms of a ministry circular dated October 16, 2008. Several attempts by the Sunday Times to talk to the Secretary to the Ministry for his comments did not succeed.

However, mosque official Amanullah said the land in question was exclusively a private property and therefore it was not mandatory to obtain the ministry’s approval.

Meanwhile, in a related development, security forces personnel and residents in Kattankudy put out a fire outside the Mosque Federation building there on Thursday morning, hours before the hartal began. Residents said the Mosque Federation official had advised against the staging of the hartal, a decision that did not go well with some people who were angry over the attack on the Dambulla mosque. The building suffered minor damage due to the fire.

Qatar-based sheikh appeals for unity

Yusuf Qardawi

The world’s leading Islamic theologian, Yusuf al Qaradawi, has advised Sri Lankan Muslims to live in harmony with the majority people while maintaining their Islamic identity.

“You are part of the world Muslim nation. We are there for you as you are for us. Live in harmony with all communities in Sri Lanka and do not isolate yourself,” the Qatar-based sheikh said in a message to Sri Lankan Muslims in the wake of the Dambulla mosque controversy.

Sheikh Qardawi, who is also the chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, called on Sri Lankan Muslims of various schools of thought to shed their differences and build their strength through unity.

Religious leaders hold talks with imam

A group of priests representing all four religions practised in the country met the Dambulla mosque’s chief imam, Moulavi Jaufer Maulana, yesterday and explored measures aimed at protecting peace and harmony which they said were important for economic and spiritual development.

The President’s Buddhist Affairs Coordinator Ven. Galagama Dhammaransi Thera, Muslim Religious Affairs Coordinator Hassan Moulana, Rev. Sarath Hettiarachchi and Hindu priest Subramanium Kurukkal were among those who took part at this meeting.

Courtesy: Sunday Times

 

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